Healing journey takes us from despair to hope to joy

by Catherine Fenwick ã 2000

few weeks ago I got the following message on my website from a young man in Philadelphia, his remarks are legitimate and I responded. "I recently had the painful experience of watching my mother die from cancer. I do not think there is anything funny about that. I found your website and can't really figure out where you are coming from with this positive attitude perspective."

I am very sorry for your loss. You are understandably distressed and perhaps angry at the thought that someone could laugh at such a time. Of course dying from cancer is not something to laugh about and watching someone we love die is very painful. What you have described is something I've thought about a lot because there is some danger in the "healing with humour" model. Healing humour and positive attitude is about timing, there is a time for tears and a time for laughter. When we focus on the pain, loss and sadness, we can miss out on the gifts.

Life is a series of beginnings and endings, comings and goings, losses and gains. How we handle these inevitable changes affects our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Life does not cease to be funny when something bad happens any more than it ceases to be serious when we are laughing. Positive attitude does not guarantee survival, although there is some evidence that it facilitates healing. Most certainly a positive attitude will affect the quality of your life. People who feel positive and hopeful are happier than those who feel hopeless. In living our lives to the fullest we do not go directly from tragedy to joy. There is a healing process that we go through. This healing process isn't just about joy and laughter, it is also about grieving with lots of anger, sadness and tears. Sadness and joy are two sides of the coin of life, both are methods of externalizing our emotions.

People have many different perspectives on the notion of positive attitude. I have heard everything from, "positive attitude is naiveté " to "positive attitude is everything." Most of us have felt like this at different times in our lives, depending on what's happening. Life is a process, we never really get to perfection. Bad things happen in life and when they do our responses range from despair, anger, hope, acceptance, joy and back again. Healing is complex, positive attitude helps us to heal. The healing journey takes us from despair to hope to joy. If laughter is the currency of hope, then a healthy humour attitude is necessary for the journey. A study done by Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, analyzed 40 adults whose spouses had recently died. Those who were able to express some joy and laughter as they grieved, functioned better two years after their loss. Showing signs of happiness during grief is not necessarily a form of denial.

There are dangers in the positive attitude, healing with humour, model I so often speak and write about. Sometimes people translate this into not allowing themselves, or others, to feel the full range of emotions or they may blame themselves if it "doesn't work." Denial and blame are not helpful to the healing process. Positive attitude and humour are not substitutes for feelings of loss. When we experience great loss we must allow ourselves to feel sad, anxious, angry and uncertain. We do not help ourselves by putting on the brave face of denial. Of course, the numbness of denial is good in the beginning, but it is not to our benefit to get stuck in a state of denial. What's worse is when people want to block our feelings and not allow us to show our grief. This is an unfortunate game of, "I'll pretend everything is OK and get on with my life" before we have a chance to fully grieve our loss. When we do not acknowledge and deal with these emotions, they interfere with our ability to heal. We feel more in control of our lives when we are hopeful and positive while acknowledging the full range of emotions. True joy and humour comes out of facing our grief with all of its components. First we cry, then we laugh.

My other concern about positive attitude and laughter is that if it "doesn't work" then what? People who believe that a positive attitude is sufficient for recovery may blame themselves if their disease gets worse. They might say things like, "If only I had a better attitude" or "I just didn't have enough faith or courage." A healthy humour attitude is necessary, but it is not necessarily sufficient for physical healing. Those who think positively, while still dealing with their natural anxieties about an uncertain future, are often happier people and have a better quality of life.


I do not say that laughter cures cancer or anything else, but the work of Norman Cousins, Bernie Siegel, Lawrence LeShan and many others suggests that positive attitude and laughter can influence our health by helping to reduce stress and boost our body's internal healing mechanisms. Positive attitude and humour do not guarantee survival, but they do facilitate emotional, spiritual and physical healing. I am a nine-year survivor of cancer. If my cancer comes back I will not blame myself by saying that I didn't laugh enough or that my attitude was not right. I want my positive attitude and my sense of humour to help me through the pain of grief, to give me the courage to face the loss and to experience life to the full today. I want my attitude to help me find inner peace.

Someone said to me the other day, "Hope is everything." I believe that where there's laughter, there's hope, and when we have hope we meet life with courage, dignity and joy. When we heal emotionally and spiritually, we are able to find our joy and laughter amidst the sorrow.

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